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The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State (Mr. John Prescott): We want to encourage people to stand as local councillors. We recognise their voluntary contribution as an important aspect of public life. We recognise that this commitment can be time-consuming, and therefore welcome employers encouraging their employees to serve as councillors by allowing them paid time-off to carry out their council duties.
The Electoral Commission has published its view that, under Schedule 7 to the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (Xthe Act"), the provision of such paid time-off should be treated as a political donation to the employee in his or her capacity as a holder of elective office. On the basis of this view, the value of such paid time-off must be reported to the Commission, where the total is more than #1,000 for each employee in the course of a year. In addition, employees will not lawfully be able to accept such paid time-off from their employers where these are not Xpermissible donors" under the Act.
The Government accepts that there has been uncertainty surrounding the issue. However, the Government's long-standing policy is that the provisions of the Act should not apply to the receipt by a councillor of paid time-off for carrying out his or her duty as a councillor. It would be clearly wrong for some employers not to be able to offer paid time-off to their employees to serve as councillors. Moreover requirements on other employers, and in some cases their employees, to calculate and to report the value of such paid time-off to the Electoral Commission would be a disincentive for employers from supporting employees who wish to serve as councillors.
Consequently, we are proposing to include in the Local Government Bill, announced on 13 November in the Queen's Speech, amendments to Schedule 7 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The effect of these amendments would be to exclude the value of any salary paid to an employee by an employer in respect of time-off taken in order to undertake duties as a local councillor from the definition of a donation in Schedule 7 to the Act. This would mean that it will be open to all employers to grant such paid time-off, and that the value of such time-off would not have to be reported to the Electoral Commission.
We are providing for these amendments to apply with retrospective effect, so that any paid time-off which might have been granted to councillors since 16 February 2001, when the requirements of Schedule 7 to Act came into force, is not to be considered as a political donation.
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The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): The Government recognises that council tax information may be useful to local authority empty homes services in their work to get such property back into use. However, it is unclear whether legislation as it currently stands allows either personal or non-personal information collected for council tax purposes to be divulged to, or used by, other parts of an authority and we are aware that the Information Commissioner has advised that the legislation does not permit such uses of council tax personal information.
The Government has therefore decided to legislate in the forthcoming Local Government Bill to make it clear local authorities can use personal and non-personal council tax information to support the development and implementation of strategies dealing with empty homes. In legislating, we will ensure that personal information will be limited to an individual's name or an address or number for communicating with him. I believe this is a sensible and proportionate response which will help get more long term empty domestic property back into use.
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): In the light of responses to last November's consultation paper on proposed changes for second homes and long term empty homes, we have decided to give local authorities new discretion in relation to council tax discounts and exemptions.
Firstly, we will allow English local authorities to reduce council tax discounts on second homes from 50 per cent to a minimum 10 per cent. Authorities in the areas where the discount has been reduced will retain any additional council tax raised. We do not propose to reduce their revenue support grant to reflect their ability to raise more council tax. The changes could raise an estimated extra #65 million in England and authorities will be able to decide how to spend this money to improve local public services, such as affordable housing, transport or policing.
We have decided not to remove the discount completely because owners need an incentive to inform the local authority that properties are second homes. Without such information, local authorities would not be able to identify the extra revenue which could be raised from changing the discount.
We recognise the special position of those who are required to live in tied accommodation provided by their employer or because of a legal requirement, such as a condition of a licence. A discount of 50 per cent will continue to apply in these cases.
Secondly, we will allow English local authorities to reduce or remove completely the current 50 per cent council tax discounts on long term empty dwellings. Authorities will not retain any additional revenue raised. This is because we believe that decisions on whether to end the discount should be based purely on whether the measure is likely to make owners consider bringing their properties back into use.
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Thirdly, we will give local authorities in England and Wales powers to create their own discounts and exemptions, including powers to grant relief on a case by case basis. Authorities exercising these powers will meet the costs of any new discounts or exemptions.
The Minister of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): We will today launch the XSuccess for All" strategy for reforming further education and training. XSuccess for All" will build on the strengths and systematically tackle the weaknesses within the learning and skills sector, through a programme of reforms which will:
For further education and sixth form colleges, we will provide new money sufficient to raise the core unit of funding by 2 per cent. each year in real terms, on average. Targeted funds for college pay and staff training will also be consolidated into core funding, further boosting the core unit of funding by at least 3.5 per cent. from 20034.
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Higher funding rates will be paid to colleges who perform well in meeting the needs of learners and employers. Poor performing colleges will get lower increases. Where necessary they will receive additional support and intervention until they improve. By 20056, this investment should enable a substantial narrowing of the core funding gap between FE and school sixth forms, and of the pay gap for staff between general FE colleges and schools.
We are also committed to further investment in work based learning providers to deliver the major reform of Modern Apprenticeships recommended by the MA Advisory Committee under Sir John Cassels, and the PSA target of 28 per cent. of young people entering MAs before they are 22 by 2004. We will make further announcements in due course about assumed funding for work based learning and adult and community learning.
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